Speaker 5: You are listening to Love Maine Radio, hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle and recorded at the studios of Maine Magazine in Portland. Dr. Lisa Belisle is a writer and physician who practices family medicine and acupuncture in Topsham. Show summaries are available at Lovemaineradio.com.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: This is Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to Love Maine Radio show number 335, hearing for the first time on Sunday, February 18, 2018. Today’s guest are Robin Alden the former executive director of the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries in Stonington, and Phineas and Joanna Sprague, the co-founder of Portland Yacht Services. Thank you for joining us.
Speaker 5: Portland Art Gallery is proud to sponsor Love Maine Radio, Portland Art Gallery is the city’s largest and is located in the heart of the old port at 154 Middle Street. The gallery focuses on exhibiting the work of contemporary Maine artists and hosts a series of monthly solo shows in its newly expanded space including Ingunn Jorgensen, Brenda Cirioni, Daniel Corey, Jill Hoy and Dave Allen. For complete show details, please visit our website at artcollectormaine.com.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: Robin Alden is the founding executive director of the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries. She retired at the end of December 2017 after 45 years of service in Maine’s fishing communities. Thanks for coming in.
Robin Alden: Great. Lovely to be here.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: We’re talking and the end of December 2017 has literally just happened. So you’re really still kind of working.
Robin Alden: I’m actually working this week mopping things up and taking care of loose ends. Yes.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: 45 years, that’s amazing. I mean, you’re not a very old person, so that’s most of your adult life, I would guess.
Robin Alden: Well, actually I wasn’t really an adult when I started, because I was taking a year off from college and ended up in Stonington, and became captivated with the mission that I’ve pursued ever since.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: Well, talk to me about that, because I know that following your passion has been really important to you and also, from what you tell me, to your husband, and you’ve encouraged your son to do the same thing. So what was your passion that got you to this place in Stonington?
Robin Alden: It was a series of just chance things that landed me in Stonington and the job I lined up. I was taking a year off from college. I was a history major and I didn’t really know. It was the early 70s, late 60s, and things were pretty tumultuous, and I didn’t really feel as if I knew what I wanted to study. And so, I took a year off to kind of settle myself. My father died when I was in high school and he was a very important person in my life. And so I was still going through that grieving. And so, I ended up in Stonington. The job I lined up didn’t come through. And so, I went down to the local paper, because what do you know how to do when you’re a sophomore in college? You know how to write and that’s about it.
So I rapidly became aware that freelance opportunities were covering the Chamber of Commerce, covering the school board, all land based, but the town ran on fishing. I started interviewing fishermen and that connected things in my past together. And so basically when I became aware of how much fishermen know about the local ecology, they know things about mud that nobody else knows there is to know, except for very, very specialized scientists, and they probably don’t know the things that fishermen know, because there have so many hours of observing the natural world. I also witnessed the frustration that fishermen felt that not being heard by scientists or policymakers and government. And my 1960s activism said, “Oh, we can fix this.”
And I spent the spring that year, I was off talking to fishermen. I just loved it. And to me, fishing seemed like the perfect business, because it connects … You have to take care of the earth. You have to take care of the ocean in order to be successful for the long term in making a living fishing, and you’re feeding people, and you’re keeping community economies going. I felt this if I had found the answer, and I wanted to fix this disconnect. And so the idea for starting a newspaper came to me sitting in a conference, when I saw the then newly appointed Commissioner of Marine Resources, Spencer Apollonio talking with a fisherman from the mid coast, and they were talking about shrimp.
And Spencer was a shrimp biologist, he knew a lot about shrimp. And this fisherman knew a lot about shrimp, and they could not hear each other. And finally the fisherman said, “I’ve got paint on my T-shirt. I bet you’ve never had pain on your T-shirt.” And actually knowing Spencer, that’s not true, but it was just this pure frustration. And I said to myself, “What we need is something that presents the world for each one of these two people living, to the other one in a non-threatening way.” I thought, “Oh, a weekly newspaper,” not knowing anything about publishing, “that shows up on the desk or the kitchen table, and just over time wears down those … bridges that gulf.” Long story short, I didn’t know anything about publishing. And I eventually got a monthly newspaper off the ground, which was called Maine Commercial Fisheries, and I called my mother who had been widowed a few years ago and said, “Your daughter’s dropping out of Yale, and she’s going to be starting a fisherman’s newspaper with no money.” And basically that’s what happened. And the newspaper’s still going as Commercial Fisheries News.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: How did your mother feel about that?
Robin Alden: I was 21 so I didn’t really register what she was feeling. Now, in retrospect as a mother, I think about that and think that it must have been pretty devastating for her. But she ended up very proud of what I’ve done.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: Well, let me rephrase the question. If you don’t know how she felt, how did she respond? What did she say?
Robin Alden: I really don’t remember the conversations but I had $3000 that my grandmother had given me and it was mine and that’s what I did. And [inaudible 00:07:33] not very successfully to try to make it happen during that next year. And the newspaper launched in September of ’73.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: Well I think you’ve just kind of hit the nail on the head when you talk about when you’re 21 you don’t necessarily register because you know your parents say something and you think, “Well I’m an adult.” So you know, you do move in that direction. But the interesting thing about what you’re describing is that you were willing to do what needed to get done to make it happen, which doesn’t always happen at the age of 21.
Robin Alden: Yeah, I don’t know where that came from or how it happened, but that’s basically how I’ve done everything I’ve done, because it’s all been … You know, I eventually finished my degree at University of Maine in Economics. But all of the things I’ve done have been self-taught.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: So where did that come from? Was this something that was modeled in your family? Was it something you learned in school? Where did you get the sense that you could figure out how to do what you needed to do?
Robin Alden: I had a wonderful education. I grew up in the Cambridge, Massachusetts area. I went to independent schools and I grew up in Cambridge when Kennedy was President, and many of the parents of people that I knew were working in the Kennedy administration, so it was a sense of if there’s a problem in the world, you need to step up and do something. And I had good tools, and not good tools in terms of knowing things, but critical thinking skills. And I think, I’ve always seen things as a whole. So you know some people are lumpers and some people are splitters.
I’m definitely a lumper and I see things in spectrums and the connections. And so I think that’s why I approach fisheries in Maine and the future of fisheries in Maine as a major set of things that need to take place in order for fisheries to be successful, and it’s everything from education to leadership to policy to really good science. The other thing, the other piece for this was, my father was an amateur naturalist, and had grown up on the water and worked on the water, and there’s a lot of … I mean if you’ve ever watched somebody sail small boats, they’re very, very attuned to what the wind’s doing, what the current’s doing, you name it, and that kind of fine scale observation is what fishermen do in order to make their living, plus it was on the water, so it was a very nice way for me to connect to a father that I’d lost.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: You spent summers in Maine and that was your original connection?
Robin Alden: Yeah. My father was a schoolteacher, and so he would take his little family to Maine while he got summer jobs working on the water. So he ran the yacht club in Prouts Neck. For a number of years we lived over the post office. And then later he was part of the founding of Hurricane Island Outward Bound School and he did both the ecology and also ran the waterfront there. But he died very early in Hurricane’s history.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: So that must have been a very formative time for you to lose your father so suddenly in high school.
Robin Alden: Very much so. Yeah.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: What I’m enjoying about this story is that essentially you saw that two different people representing two different groups had valuable information that they could each share, but somehow were not able to interface on, and so often that seems to be the problem, that it’s not that one group knows more than the other group, they just know differently, and then somehow there’s a translation issue. And so that’s what I’m really enjoying about this conversation is that you understood the translation issue and you tried to find a way to break that down.
Robin Alden: One of my favorite examples of this is actually with my husband who is a lifelong fisherman. He grew up in Vinalhaven and he fished his whole career, except for when he went to the University of Maine and ended up with a Master’s in Biochemistry, then decided that he wanted to go back fishing but he needed to get a job while he got reestablished, so he taught high school for a period of time, and then went back fishing, and as he came ashore he started to track historical ground fish location. Cod and haddock and pollack and flounders are ground fish, they feed on the bottom of the ocean. And that was his favorite fishery.
He fished every fishery that Maine fishermen fish, and so in the winter he started mapping historical accounts that talked about where fishermen in Maine caught fish on the grounds that he knew, and he called me in one night really excited. “Come and look.” And he had seen a pattern in his mapping and I went in and looked at the screen and it looked like a bowl of spaghetti to me. I could not see any pattern. And what was going on was that in his head, he had both the scientific rigor to map according to criteria three, observations and all kinds of things.
And the technical expertise to do that, GIS mapping and he knew the bottom of the Gulf of Maine. He knew that was a gully there. He knew there was a boulder over here, and he was seeing something that I couldn’t see. And so he could see the pattern. And that’s exactly what my life’s work been trying to do is pull those things together, because what we’ve learned about marine ecology in the last 40 years is that there is much more local stock structure and local behavior and learned behavior in fish populations than we ever thought. The basic fisheries’ management has always been based on, “Well, on average, there’s fish in the ocean and if you figure out how many are out there you can figure out how many you should take and then you’ll live happily ever after.” And it’s not that simple. So this local ecological knowledge is much more important and it’s even more important now because of climate change.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: Explore that a little bit more for me.
Robin Alden: If you’re taking a mathematical approach to the ocean and saying, basically you just need to know how many fish are out there, we can’t see them, it’s so bothersome. So we’ll do sampling and then we’ll build models and we’ll be pretty good. And we are pretty good at that. We’re not perfect, but we’re pretty good. The underlying assumptions of that approach to fisheries is that it’s basically a static system. We know it’s dynamic and there’s things built into the model to be able to show that, but it’s fundamentally clunky. It’s not really adaptive. Climate change isn’t something that happens at a big scale. It happens at a lot of small scales, so the currents may change and one bay may change a lot. But outside that bay it may not change or this year or in this decade.
So the fishermen who spend more hours on the ocean than any research cruise entity can ever hope to have the money to do, they are the first line observers, and if their observations are actually funneled into a process of science that has figured out how to accept this type of observation, and one of the questions you asked me before I came in here was, “What’s changed?” When I published, I left the newspaper for a while in the mid 70s, and I was working for the Sea Grant Program at the University of Maine, and as part of that, we purchased a page in Commercial Fisheries News, and I ran a newsletter there, and in one of those articles I said, “Fishermen’s observations are really good basis for scientific hypothesis.”
You don’t have to accept them as truth but there are a great set, they provide really good questions that can produce better science, more in-depth perceptions than you would get if you were sitting in your ivory tower asking questions. The federal agency scientific lab the leader of it went to Washington to terminate my funding.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: Wow. That’s … And you were just a college student.
Robin Alden: I was at that point back in school working half time and in my mid 20s. Yeah. And luckily, the vice president for research, a famous guy in the University of Maine, Fred Hutchinson who eventually came back and was the president, interviewed me and talked me through, and he said this is within academic freedom and we’ll support you.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: Why do you think there was such a strong response?
Robin Alden: I was threatening the established … Back then there was no collaborative research. Basically, people’s approach to fisherman’s knowledge was I’d be extremely surprised if that were true. You know, they assumed that there was … it was an ‘us and them’, and fishermen are always trying to get more, and what I said when I started the paper and it’s true today is I’ve been trying to give voice to all the fishermen who sit in the coffee shop and say, “Well, what they ought to do is,” and they’re not talking about. Sure, every fisherman’s aggressive. Not every fishermen, but humans are greedy.
They want to get more, whatever. But there is this underlying conservation and observer theme in most fishermen and certainly in some fishermen and those are the people who were really thinking about, “I want my grandchildren to be able to have this lifestyle. I’m in the best business that there’s ever been, and I want to make sure that we restrain ourselves, because we don’t necessarily always make the right decisions. And I want to contribute my observations, and will somebody listen to me?”
Dr.Lisa Belisle: As we’ve been talking, it has reminded me of the struggle that, just for example, health care providers have where there is the scientific knowledge, which is proven by numbers. And then there is the clinical knowledge, which you know, as a doctor for you know more than two decades now, there’s stuff that I have learned by being on the ground, by sitting with patients over and over and over again. But that’s not the stuff that comes down from the scientific bodies. And yet, both are very valuable and I think a lot of doctors feel as if we don’t have a voice in patient care these days.
Robin Alden: That’s really interesting, because you also are an increasingly regulated industry where a lot of what you’re able to get paid for, or the patients are able to get paid for whatever, it has to be based on all of those scientific studies and doesn’t readily lend itself to-
Dr.Lisa Belisle: Which is not unlike fisheries-
Robin Alden: Very similar. I hadn’t thought of it quite that way, but you’re right and it’s the same kind of fine observation, fine scale observation.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: So do you think that this is an evolving change that we are seeing?
Robin Alden: I actually think that fisheries’ management is at a pivot point right now because of the acknowledgement of climate change and that is … First of all, fisheries is always about policy because it’s a public resource. So you always have government involved, whether it’s the town managing their claims or their alewives or the state or the federal agency, and the federal agency regulates the outside three, and the state inside three, but there’s lots of collaborative interagency connections that make all of that work. So you always have to have government, because otherwise there’s no form of restraint. And that’s been true …
I mean, throughout human history, there have been rules or taboos that have tried to allow humans to live within the bounty that the earth provides. Government science is in a terrible position all the time because if they make the wrong decision, one way they’re sued by the environmentalists if they make the wrong decision, the other way, the industry sues them and in fact, often if they just make any decision, they get attacked from both sides.
It’s a very defensive conservative cautious process, and I think this is again health care is a good analogy, probably in the same situation. So if you’re looking at the history of science, this changes very slowly, and most of fisheries science has been federal for many years because that’s the only group that’s had the incentive to have money for fisheries science. Increasingly, there is academic science going on as well.
And that’s a big change that part of where Maine has led the way and in some ways on this. But there hasn’t been as much challenge and debate with the science that affects regulation, that affects fishermen. And so where there may be a lot of recognition, let’s say, about this fine scale population structure that exists not just for codfish in the Gulf of Maine, but for scallops in the Gulf of Maine, whoever thought that in one small 14 square mile Bay in Maine, the scallops are genetically different from the scallops outside there, or that in the middle of the Pacific, a reef fish that’s an inch long homes not just to the reef where they were hatched from, but to the specific portion of the reef. There’s a lot of complexity that government science or the policy hasn’t caught up to be able to figure out.
And I think now that we’re facing that we’ve got a dynamic situation, we’re going to have to figure out what’s the political structure, what’s the decision making structure that’s going to allow us to adapt faster. And I think that where I’ve been interested in and where I’ve been greatly affected by Jim Wilson, who is a professor in the School of Marine Sciences at the University Maine. He’s an economist, but he’s been very involved in both sort of the interface between ecology and fisheries policy.
And he’s been looking at computer complex adaptive systems theory basically. And what you do when you have what you call a wicked problem or a very complex problem, is you set up feedback loops, rapid feedback loops so that you’re learning and you do this in a hierarchical way, because there are some things that matter at the very fine scale, local, and there are some things that have to be done at a bay or gulf or ocean wide scale.
And so for me the political science fascination right now is how do you set up systems that human beings can live within that create this information loop and that’s adaptive decision making that make smart decisions going forward? And I think, there are many people thinking about this now and although the laws still lock us into the old way of doing things, at the federal level, I think at the state level there’s much more room for innovation. And I think, some of the things that we’ve been involved with recently are going to be contributing to the federal agency being able to experiment a little bit.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: Like what?
Robin Alden: As you mentioned, I’m just in the process of retiring right now. And one of the things that I’m really pleased to have been able to do before I left was to develop an agreement with the National Fisheries Service and the State of Maine and the organization that I led until just now, Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries, to develop the science that would allow an ecosystem-based approach to fisheries in the eastern Maine area. And it isn’t even fully … We don’t even know what this means yet. But the idea is two agencies and our organization have agreed to work to say, “How would we do this?”
And it’s a science agreement and it will take a number of years to figure this out, but we’ll learn by doing, and it’s building on the scallop co-management process that Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries was instrumental in helping get going in the state of Maine with the Department of Marine Resources. It will build on other types of local citizen science that’s going on at the clam level or the alewife level, and we’ll just see where it leads. But it gives me incentive for Coastal Fisheries and Paul Anderson who’s the new executive director a wonderful focus for the next era.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: I was thinking about the interview I did with Abigail Carroll who is an oyster farmer, I guess she calls herself, and her mentioning that different oysters in exactly the same location can have different characteristics based on how far down in the water they are. When you were talking about these microscopic environmental changes that impact an organism, I was thinking how interesting it is that we live in a time that we now can see these things, and we’re just on the cusp of being able to do something with this information.
Robin Alden: And that’s what they mean about the basis for a hypothesis or the basis for a business decision, because there are all these things. We can’t see currents, we can’t see plankton distribution. These things are invisible. Some are too big for us to see, some are too small for us to see. We see the indicators, which are the oysters at the bottom are growing differently than the oysters in the middle, than the top. And as the currents change with temperature changes, we’re going to have different plankton availability in different places at different depths. It’s absolutely fascinating.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: Well, I appreciate the 45 years of service that you have given to Maine’s fishing communities and also the time you’ve taken to come up here. I guess down here from where you live in Stonington. I’ve been speaking with Robin Alden who was the founding executive director of the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries, who retired at the end of December 2017. But I suspect it’s not the last we will hear from you.
Robin Alden: Thank you very much. A privilege to be able to do this.
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Dr.Lisa Belisle: Phineas and Joanna Sprague are the co-founders of Portland Yacht Services. Thanks for coming in today. I think you like to be called Finn, is that right?
Phineas Sprague: That’s right.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: Okay. Nice to have you.
Joanna Sprague: Thank you very much.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: I’m really intrigued by all the work that you have put into Portland’s waterfront and this is something that you’ve been doing for many years. You’ve been married for 42 years that we decided that was how long ago.
Joanna Sprague: Yeah. Long time.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: And you’ve always been joined by the water.
Joanna Sprague: Yes. In fact, when we first came back from sailing, it was hard to be more than 72 feet apart.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: Because you’re used to being-
Phineas Sprague: 72 feet apart, right, as far apart as we got.
Joanna Sprague: For many years.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: You met in Florida, where you were working as a nurse, Joanna-
Joanna Sprague: That’s correct.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: And Finn, you were sailing around the world.
Phineas Sprague: I was. I had the idea that we could sail around the world in 18 months. And it didn’t work out that way. But we did meet in Florida.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: And you also got married on board your vessel-
Phineas Sprague: Right.
Joanna Sprague: In Bali.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: In Bali.
Joanna Sprague: And all of your family was there, and just my parents and it was Christmas.
Phineas Sprague: Christmas Day.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: That’s very romantic.
Joanna Sprague: It’s romantic. It was part of what we sort of said, “Come visit us at Christmas time.” It wasn’t easy to find a minister. We weren’t sure he was going to show up. And he did. So we then brought out … Did have a ring? Yes we did have a ring. So we did get married, but it was a surprise to everybody.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: Joanna, your background was in you said outboarding.
Joanna Sprague: Well, my parents had a little marina and camp grounds in Canada, and I grew up on the water. I delivered papers and then it shut down in the winter we would go to Florida, and they come back up and opened it up. So I grew up working in a little store.
Phineas Sprague: OMC dealer.
Joanna Sprague: My dad gave us all of his old manuals and he even brought a motor to us one time on a folding motor, which was one of the first ones ever, ever. Then I went to nursing school, so I had a nursing background getting on the boat.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: So I guess, what I wonder is, weren’t you taking kind of an enormous leap of faith by getting on that boat that first time 42 years ago with this man that you had just met?
Joanna Sprague: You’re right, because the boat was already in Panama at the time, and Finn called and asked if I’d help him get the boat across the Pacific. And I said, sure.
Phineas Sprague: Where are the Marquesas?
Joanna Sprague: Got off the phone, had to look it up on a map. I had no idea where the Marquesas we’re, that’s near Tahiti but I never got off. Four years, later we sailed back into Portland.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: So do you think it actually strengthened your marriage, the fact that you spent all that time together in a pretty small-
Phineas Sprague: We’ve had each other’s backs. In most difficult circumstances.
Joanna Sprague: Absolutely. You know there’s no question that as I said, we weren’t ready to be apart when we came back sailing around the world, and that was the hardest part for me to go off every day and go to a job and not seeing him for eight hours. It was very different than our life together for the first four-five years was we were always together and we’ve always been on a boat. You also know who’s in charge, and in a house it’s a little different.
Phineas Sprague: We’ve had an agreement since we were married and that is that she did all the little decisions and I did all the big ones, and after 42 years there’ve really been no big decisions, so any time I thought that was a big decision, I got really big trouble for it.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: So it just sounds like you’re doing all the decisions, Joanna.
Joanna Sprague: No, I’ve had to relinquish-
Phineas Sprague: She’s the admiral. I look at the horizon and she looks at my feet to make sure that I don’t trip.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: You complement each other well.
Joanna Sprague: We’ve been at it a long time. We know who’s better at other things, so we let each other take off the walls. But those first few years of being married, we weren’t apart.
Phineas Sprague: And it was also dangerous. You know we were in those situations-
Joanna Sprague: That’s the 70s.
Phineas Sprague: In the 70s in Indonesia and Red Sea and places that … We were right off Timor when that was invaded. So and then we got in the cyclone and then you know we got some pretty bad storms and you know-
Joanna Sprague: We were one of the first cruising boats to go through the Suez Canal after it reopened. And it was frightening. Lots of stories of guns-
Phineas Sprague: People couldn’t comprehend a yacht. Even the concept of you know, “Are you sailing around the world, because why? What are you doing? We’re having a hard enough time living and you have the resources to do what?”
Joanna Sprague: Would I do it again? No. I mean I think the world is a lot scarier now. I wouldn’t want to be at any of these places. I mean you know we get that question all the time, and there’s too much unrest, there’s too much dislike out there.
Phineas Sprague: I slept with a pistol under my pillow all the way up the Red Sea and not knowing what I would do if I had to use it. You know, boats were machine gunned. And I think it was a young person’s concept that you could live forever.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: How old were you?
Joanna Sprague: We were in our 20s when we were doing this. Back in ’77.
Phineas Sprague: ’77.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: And what did your families think of this voyage around the world?
Joanna Sprague: As I said, I’m the youngest in my family so my mom was okay. They came to visit us a few times. Same with your family. I think you had always talked about sailing around the world, as a kid.
Phineas Sprague: Well I was always independent and you know my parents … I guess, they’d probably be put in jail for what they let me do as a child. You know they let me go out and I was allergic to everything that was on the farm. So at age six I was out rolling a boat around in Cape Elizabeth offshore in a southwest breeze, so my eyes would get all clouded up with … And then I ended up all by myself doing mapping for the main geological survey down the coal mines in West Virginia. We basically figured that the first pancake was the one that you always threw out, so it would be okay. There was a bunch of us. We were six of us.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: You mean you were the oldest child?
Phineas Sprague: Yeah.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: So you were the first pancake?
Phineas Sprague: Right. But the experience that they allowed me to do made me very independent. And I think that they trusted me but they would never allow more than three other kids on the boat at any one time.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: Just in case something bad happened.
Phineas Sprague: Right. And you know it was dangerous.
Joanna Sprague: We didn’t have the communications that we have now on boats. We had a ham radio and we had a single sideband that-
Phineas Sprague: Didn’t work.
Joanna Sprague: That was one of the harder things for all of us was not having that communication. And if you talk to our parents, it was a big deal when we did make the phone calls.
Phineas Sprague: Right.
Joanna Sprague: We tried to call them when we get into a port so they knew where we were.
Phineas Sprague: There were great ham radio operators in Southport, London-
Joanna Sprague: That was a whole different level.
Phineas Sprague: That would help us to communicate. You know nowadays you know you can basically with the radio and phones and all of this stuff, you have instant gratification from anywhere in the world, whereas when we were sailing, we were the last, I call it classic boat that used celestial navigation. And celestial teaches you to be very cautious. And you know there can be many days when you don’t have a good fix, and it can be quite dangerous when you’re making approaches to land. So things have changed. A lot of people that don’t have the maritime skills are able to get out on the water and go great distances now.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: Celestial navigation is by the stars, so not having a good fix is, maybe you can’t see the stars well?
Phineas Sprague: You can’t see the stars and you’re not able to locate your position on the nautical chart with any accuracy. So you’re approaching a coast or something in this storm, what you usually do is try to make contact with a lighthouse or something that flashes 20 miles off so if you’re 20 miles off course, you can see the light and then you can readjust and go on with a different form of navigation, but the real danger is just that period when you’re approaching near shallow water.
Joanna Sprague: You also use the sun and the moon. You can use all.
Phineas Sprague: Planets and planet moons, jet contrails you know whatever tool that you have.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: Tell me about the Portland Yacht Services. Tell me about how this came to be.
Phineas Sprague: Well when we got back, it turned out that my grandfather Thomas’s company that he sold, which is a Portland company was for sale, and United Industrial Syndicate owned it and they had built this machine that reached out and grabbed people. So it was a huge liability. So they had to shut the company down. And so because my family’s been in the energy business for years in the coal mines and my grandfather sold it, we were looking for something positive to do and the Portland Company was building nuclear power plant components at the time and it had actually built the first commercial nuclear power plant in New England, Yankee Rowe, that reactor. And so my parents decided that they wanted to acquire the property and build nuclear power plant components.
And so because I was a geologist and had studied petrology and all of these things, it fit that I was working in operations. And after Three Mile Island, the whole industry shut down in the United States, and the Portland Engineering Company went out of business.
Joanna Sprague: That was the name of it.
Phineas Sprague: And I had seen so many decisions that I didn’t understand and couldn’t articulate reasons for. I went back to school, went to Northeastern and got an MBA and was sort of starving to death. And so somebody in the Yacht Club asked me to put a fender on a Boston Whaler in my basement. And so I did that and then a person that I’ve known for years, Eddie Rowe was running the yacht club to do the maintenance in the yacht club had a heart attack, and they said, “Will you take it over?” and I’m going, “Well, you know, it’s food, right?” And so I started to do that.
Joanna Sprague: Out of our house.
Phineas Sprague: Out of our house while I was getting my MBA and I got asked to go work for General Dynamics in Quincy to work to the quality assurance for the submarines. And I went down there and decided that none of these people were like Bath Iron Works and they didn’t understand, they weren’t doing good quality work. And they would eat the young person alive.
Joanna Sprague: Plus we didn’t want to move.
Phineas Sprague: And we couldn’t move. We didn’t want to move.
Joanna Sprague: We have a lovely spot where we live, where we brought up our kids, and it’s one of the questions, totally, I’d stay there forever and we didn’t want to leave Maine.
Phineas Sprague: So I was working on boats at the Yacht Club and somebody asked me to rebuild a boat. You know I started to move into an old potato barn, in Cape Elizabeth and you know we were working on people’s boats and came to the attention of the town zoning person and they found out, they said that it was not appropriate to build boats and work on boats in a barn on a salt water farm. And so we had to scoot into an empty building in Portland, which is the Portland Company and moved overnight out of there, and then later went back in and changed the zoning, but it was too late for us.
Joanna Sprague: When we moved to 58 Fore, we were only in a couple of the buildings. Most of them were leased at that point-
Phineas Sprague: Or abandoned.
Joanna Sprague: Or abandoned, and Portland Yacht Services came out of that.
Phineas Sprague: We actually didn’t have access to the water at that point.
Joanna Sprague: And within five years was the beginning of a little… and then choo-choo train came. And Finn was the guy that brought that here and hauled it down.
Phineas Sprague: Biddeford, Ashley and a whole bunch of other people were-
Joanna Sprague: Kind of home. And that’s when you started to get the rights across.
Phineas Sprague: I kept getting diverted by nonprofit activities. You know the school, I was on the board there and got that rebuilt and up with Jim Stevenson and-
Joanna Sprague: Lightship-
Phineas Sprague: Nantucket Lightship and Spring Point Museum-
Joanna Sprague: But that’s all been coming out of the 58 Fore Portland Yacht Services, and as our tenants moved out, we moved into the buildings.
Phineas Sprague: No sewer there. It was pumping the raw sewage overboard for years and you couldn’t lease any property there until you put the new pumping station and connected all the heads, the place has fallen apart round our ears. This was quite a struggle.
Joanna Sprague: And 31 years ago, we asked about doing a little boat show and the little boat show has a dozen boat builders from Maine just stand at a table. No boats.
Phineas Sprague: Boat builders and [inaudible 00:47:37] Wilson a sailmaker from Boothbay.
Joanna Sprague: These are our friends.
Phineas Sprague: David Nutt and Dragonworks-
Joanna Sprague: Within four years we had moved close to 60 exhibitors with boats and we started to utilize the space and that was just one weekend and the boat building industry changed. People came just to meet the boat builders, which many of these guys wouldn’t step foot outside of their shop let alone the state. So it was really an opportunity for that industry to get the spotlight on. That was another big change for us to utilize the buildings but the boat yard continued to grow.
Phineas Sprague: Right and we got into a situation where we had to move the boats all outside in order to invite our competitors in to a boat show.
Joanna Sprague: It grew.
Phineas Sprague: It grew and grew until at one point we had 240 exhibitors and every single niche and cranny was filled with the boat.
Joanna Sprague: Outside and inside and we had boats on docks in March. Unusual. And then we also-
Phineas Sprague: The thing is that Joanna would run … She would do all the work to set the boat show up all year long, put everything out, get everything organized, get the layout of the place going until like a week before the boat show, and everybody else is working on boats and then suddenly it was like the starting gun would go off, we drop all of our tools, we’d move all the boats outside, we threw a party for three days with our friends in the boating industry. And then everything will go back into the building and we go work on boats again. So it was almost a month that we would spend not working with the whole organization and then-
Joanna Sprague: And we worked diligently with the neighborhood, because that neighborhood wasn’t used to it, and tons of people would come from away. And we had-
Phineas Sprague: We were imposing on them, right. So we had to be really careful. You know and it was hard because you get people that are really focused in coming to this boat show and they don’t really care where they park and they don’t really care that they’ve gone up under the grass and somebody’s lawn-
Joanna Sprague: And it’s March.
Phineas Sprague: And it’s March, so it’s mud season so you know it’s so difficult thing.
Joanna Sprague: We’ve put the flower show. We did that for 17 years.
Phineas Sprague: It was Joanna’s love. You know, I will work in the garden when I can’t stand up in the boat.
Joanna Sprague: Is was a whole different crowd of people too, you know boats, artists. They’re rough around the edges. The green industry is a little different, but it was something we worked on. It was something that the Junior League had come to us but they wanted the buildings for a month. We couldn’t shut down our business for a month. We could shut down for a week and especially if we had two shows back to back, that worked, so we did that for a long time.
Phineas Sprague: Kearneys, we call ourselves Kearneys for two weeks. But it was you know you didn’t do it enough so you became jaded, and you also were because it’s been going on for 30 or more years. The people that come into the show as exhibitors have become close friends.
Joanna Sprague: And we’ve seen a whole new generation, their children are taking over their businesses or their children are doing other things in the marine industry, just like our kids. It’s been really a piece that we work at also, it’s just education. We’re finding that the boat building industry needs to keep promoting themselves. You’re going to lose the art of building with wood. And we worked hard at the whole idea of education, where to get those kids. We work hard, trying to find kids-
Phineas Sprague: Helped start the Marine Systems Program. And we find that the real issue is to start with a small boat, and then basically have the opportunity to look at the marine industry as a possible career. And you know people don’t remember that World War II was carnage, and Maine supplied a lot of Merchant Marine that never came back. And the mothers would tell their kids, “I don’t want you to go out in a boat with your uncle. I want you to go work in a mill.” So many of the towns around Maine basically if you go look at them, the anchorage is full of boats from away, and the kids are throwing rocks in the water because they really know that they have an attachment to it, and yet they don’t know how to get out onto it. And so you know, it’s been one of the things that we’ve been trying to do is to reconnect the young people in Maine with a place that you don’t have to mow.
Joanna Sprague: That’s where Sail Maine came in very early on. He’d with him for years, because the kids from the hill would come down-
Phineas Sprague: And throw rocks at the windows at the building-
Joanna Sprague: We got to figure out what to do with these kids. They we’re bored. They want to be on water, they don’t know how, until they started tiny little boat building projects.
Phineas Sprague: We work with the University of Southern Maine and we work with the city of Portland, the parks and rec, and a whole bunch of great people.
Joanna Sprague: And now we have worldwide sailors, nationally known sailors.
Phineas Sprague: We got some of the finest sailors in the world coming out of Portland, Maine and that’s basically because we changed the model a little bit. All of the high schools sail together. So when I was a child, I would sail and there’d be one other person in the whole group that would challenge you. And now there’s probably six or eight or 10 high schools that are also playing excellent sailors and they all challenge themselves, so they end up being world class sailors, because that’s the model, that’s really different. My high school has always attracted great sailors from say Bermuda and other places in the world to sail, but even still, it’s only two or three people that are really good and they don’t have the opportunity to tune themselves up, whereas this program is really tuning the kids up to be excellent sailors.
Joanna Sprague: And some of the kids go on to Maine Maritime Academy.
Phineas Sprague: Maine Maritime and Landing Boat School.
Joanna Sprague: Huge support funneling them, getting kids into that school-
Phineas Sprague: Universities.
Joanna Sprague: Good jobs-
Phineas Sprague: Further in the marine sciences and so that you know you can’t sort of take someone who’s 18 and suddenly think that they’re going to have boat sense and you know they are all thumbs and it takes a long time to get that original boat sense. So you really in my view, have to start in eight to 14, if not sooner in a very small tippy boat.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: I hope that people have been listening will be intrigued enough to go down and take a look at the work that you’ve done down at Portland Yacht Services. I’ve been speaking with Phineas and Joanna Sprague who are the co-founders of Portland Yacht Services. You’ve done a lot of good work for our city so I really appreciate it, and for the state of Maine. Thank you and thank you for coming in today.
Joanna Sprague: Thank you.
Phineas Sprague: You’re welcome.
Dr.Lisa Belisle: You’ve been listening to Love Maine Radio show number 335. Our guests have included Robin Alden and Phineas and Joanna Sprague. For more information on our guests and extended interviews visit lovemaineradio.com. Love Maine Radio is downloadable for free on iTunes. Free preview of each week show. Sign up for our e-newsletter and like our Love Maine Radio Facebook page. Follow me on Twitter as Dr. Lisa and see our Love Maine Radio photos on Instagram. Please let us know what you think of Love Maine Radio. We welcome your suggestions for future shows. Also, let our sponsors know that you have heard about them here. We’re privileged that they enable us to bring Love Maine Radio to you each week. This is Dr. Lisa Belisle. Thank you for sharing this part of your day with me. May you have a good bountiful life.
Speaker 5: Love Maine Radio is brought to you by Maine Magazine, Aristelle, Portland Art Gallery, and Art Collector Maine. Audio production and original music are by Spencer Albee. Our Editorial Producer is Brittany Cost. Our Assistant Producer is Shelbi Wassick. Our Community Development Manager is Casey Lovejoy, and our Executive Producers are Andrea King, Kevin Thomas, Rebecca Falzano, and Dr. Lisa Belisle. For more information on our production team, Maine Magazine, or any of the guests featured here today, please visit us at lovemaineradio.com.
Speaker 6: So good. How can you paint a picture of a person who is already a work of art? Who’ll be the last and surely not the first one. Couldn’t choose a perfect place to start.
I’ve seen greener pastures. I’ve been to the moon. I wish I’d never asked her if she missed me too.
If she were dollars she would be a billion. If she were water she would fill the sea. If she were taller she could crush a building. If she were honey I would be her bee.
I’ve seen greener pastures. I’ve been to the moon. I wish I’d never asked her if she missed me too.
So all the black and white that filled these pages have run together into so much gray. Even though I don’t know how to read it, I just can’t seem to put this book away.
‘Cuz I’ve seen greener pastures. I’ve been to the moon. I wish I’d never asked her if she missed me too.
‘Cuz I’ve seen greener pastures. I’ve been to the moon-